There’s a clear association between exercise and brain health, and we’ve known for some time that physical activity can protect brain cells. Now, new research suggests it’s all to do with the way training affects insulin and body mass index.
A new study published in April 2022 found that brain volume - which is a prediction of cognitive ability in old age - is protected by exercise, meaning that athletes are at a reduced risk of dementia.
The study took 134 people who had no issues with their memory and asked them to fill out surveys about their physical activity over the last year.
Brain scans were then conducted to measure brain volume and glucose metabolism, with the latter usually being seen in people with dementia. The researchers also collected information about other medical factors like blood pressure, insulin and BMI.
Those who did the most physical activity were found to have a higher total volume of grey matter in their brains than those who did the least. This is significant because grey matter is associated with dementia.
According to the study’s author, Geraldine Poisnel: "Maintaining a lower BMI through physical activity could help prevent disturbed insulin metabolism that is often seen in ageing, thus promoting brain health.”
For athletes, this can only be positive news. It reinforces the potential long-term effects of a lifestyle with fitness at the centre. Building a love of training and forming habits that last will increase our chances of being active and healthy later in life.
For doctors and medical practitioners, the findings could also help them develop new treatments and preventative measures for those newly diagnosed with brain diseases or people who have a family history of dementia.
"These results may help us to understand how physical activity affects brain health, which may guide us in developing strategies to prevent or delay age-related decline in memory and thinking skills," Poisnel added. "Older adults who are physically active gain cardiovascular benefits, which may result in greater structural brain integrity."